Peter Ross as large: Farewell to the ferry

THE Glasgow to Renfrew crossing takes less than two minutes and has served the community on the Clyde for longer than anyone remembers. Now its days are numbered

IT'S 6.30am on Thursday morning and the Renfrew Rose is making its first trip of the day across the Clyde, in doing so sailing a little closer to oblivion. High heejins at Strathclyde Partnership for Transport have decided that the ferry service between Glasgow and Renfrew costs too much, so 31 March will be the last day in a 500-year history of river crossings. A boat is usually followed by a wake; in this case it feels like there's one being held on board.

"It's very sad," says Tommy Gray, 49, crossing from Renfrew to his welding job at BAE Systems in Scotstoun. "You get an affection for the ferry. You get to know the guys who work on it."

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Gray has his bike with him, and is wearing a cycling helmet, the light on the front bright in the morning darkness. He has taken the ferry to work for 34 years, travelling to his job in the shipyard as his dad and grandad did before him. When the service ends, he faces an extra five-mile commute each way through the Clyde Tunnel.

Will he really cycle that far each day? "Whit else d'ye suggest ah dae?" he snorts. "Pack ma swimmin' trunks?"

At this hour, most passengers are making their way to BAE, which everyone still calls Yarrow's. Men in woolly hats carry their pieces in plastic shopping bags. There's a little swear-strewn chat. Tabloids are unfurled and spread out on knees. News of Celtic's latest defeat is digested, followed by a curse or chuckle depending on the reader's particular persuasion.

Some of the younger men are clearly hungover, the very definition of peely-wally, and clutch their Irn-Bru like life preservers. The grooved benches of the Renfrew Rose are excellent for keeping bottles from rolling off and smashing on the steel floor.

There are, at most, nine men on board, though the boat can hold 50. At one time, this ferry and the others which used to cross the Clyde would have been packed with workers going to the yards which lined both banks. However, the decline of shipbuilding, together with the construction of the Clyde Tunnel and Erskine Bridge, has meant that passenger numbers have been decreasing for years.

There were 140,000 journeys in 2009, which Strathclyde Partnership for Transport estimates equates with 20,000 individual passengers. A single fare is 1.20, and SPT loses around 430,000 a year. In addition, the two ferries – the Renfrew Rose and Yoker Swan – would need replaced if the service was to continue. The welders, platers and sparks going to their work before dawn are, therefore, a precarious breed – the last shipyard workers on the Clyde making one of the last ferry crossings.

It takes less than two minutes to traverse the 200-metre stretch of water. The Renfrew Rose turns neatly halfway across, elegant as one of the swans that throng the shores, so that its gangway faces the approaching slipway. The engines are noisy, the air cold and filled with the smell of diesel. By 7am, dawn is breaking over the BAE yards and the radar of HMS Diamond, a Type-45 destroyer, is silhouetted, like a minaret, against the sunrise.

In the wheelhouse, where a single paper rose is jammed into the window frame, Joe McLaughlin is turning the steel wheel and thinking back over his 12 years of service. He's a stocky man in his forties with short grey hair, dressed in a high-vis' tabard and tartan tie. He loves his job as ferry supervisor. You might think crossing the Clyde 48,000 times a year would grow monotonous, but McLaughlin is never bored. "I think I've seen everything," he says. "I'm no being morbid, but see the biggest satisfaction I get? It's when somebody's committed suicide, or fell in the river, and we find the body.

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"The one that sticks in my mind is the Polish skipper that went missing, it must have been in 1999, and six weeks later I was standing on the deck talking to a passenger. As the boat pulled away, this big massive tree floating in the water started to turn and his body came up out of the water, caught in a branch. It was like something out of a horror movie. I always remember trying to catch him with the boathook and hearing this dull thud, like wood, when the point was hitting his body. I sent a card of condolence to his widow in Poland on behalf of the Renfrew ferry. It was nice to think that woman had closure now."

As the ferry is one of the few vessels on the Clyde, the police often ask the crew to look out for missing persons either floating in the water or trying to cross. They've fished out a lot of bodies and body parts over the years, which is never pleasant, and have developed dark humour to cope with such grim tasks. John Malinowski, a large ferryman with 34 years' service, recalls asking a police officer whether a particular corpse was a Rangers fan. "What makes you think that?" the officer asked. "Well," said Malinowski, "he's a bit blue."

Four or five times a year, someone falls into the water from one of the banks, either by drunken accident or with sober purpose, but so far the ferrymen have saved everyone, even if that means risk to their own lives. Sometimes they foil suicide bids before they get going. There was, for instance, the old woman filling her pockets with pebbles who informed a concerned Malinowski, "It's awright son, I'm jist goin' tae droon masel."

The crew know their passengers very well. First name terms are common, and the ferrymen have created a pantheon of regulars. There's Bill the Baker, Bert the Butcher, Squeaky Voice, Granny Ferry, and a man with long hair and a beard known as Jesus. On Clydeside, there's none of this walking on water nonsense. Jesus takes the ferry.

There's also a guy, known simply as Gordon, a former paratrooper. He likes a drink and enjoys it especially by the heat of a bonfire on a patch of waste ground at the end of a footpath on the Yoker side. This drinking spot is known, colloquially, as the Clyde River Bar. "So Gordon," says McLaughlin, "if he missed the last ferry, he'd a black poly bag, and he'd take his clothes off, put them in it, and swim across.

"He once says to me, 'Joe, we're not down-and-outs. We don't drink cheap cider. We're posh alcoholics. We buy wur vodka 'n' that out o' Lidl's.'"

Spend any time on the ferry and it becomes clear how important it is to the community. Between eight and nine you see the kids who live in Renfrew and go to school in Glasgow, or vice versa. You also meet the people who have taken the ferry since they were kids themselves. They remember back to when it was a chain ferry, known as the Skye ferry on account of the number of islanders who worked on it. Those were the days when the boat ran all night and you might well find yourself invited to join the crew for a dram.

Dan Crawley, 77, heading to the shops in Paisley with his wife Jean, says he's been taking this boat, "for as long as the Clyde's been navigable". Liz Grant, 51, travelling to work in Clydebank, started a petition to save the ferry and gathered more than 2,500 signatures in three days. "We grew up in the east end of Glasgow and my dad worked in Renfrew," she says. "He used to tell me he took the ferry to work, but I used to think a fairy came and took him."

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Gerry Parker, 45, standing on deck en route to Glasgow, sweeps an awestruck hand past the riverscape. "See for your average commoner? This is as close to the river as the majority of us are going to get." He has written a protest song about the scrapping of the ferry and posted it on YouTube. "There's not many songs about the Renfrew ferry," he says, "apart from that teuchtery one, The Song Of The Clyde."

Alexis Buchanan, 36, is a dental nurse who lives in Knightswood but works in Renfrew. Upset that the ferry service will soon end, she is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid a lengthy commute. "I'm going to buy a dinghy on eBay and cross the river myself. All right, I might get the jail, but they'll have to catch me first."

The ferrymen take their place in this community seriously. They'll carry funeral parties down to the shipyard so widows can scatter the ashes of husbands on the waters where they once worked. They'll dress up as Santa and sail past the local nursery school at Christmas. They'll accept, with a smile, the sympathy of regulars, no matter how indelicately put. "Thass f***in' pish," says one man, Big Chris. "Izzat yooz oot ae a joab, noo?" The crew are indeed worried about their own livelihoods, but seem just as concerned with the impact the loss of the ferry will have on their passengers.

One man who will feel its loss deeply is Alexander Morrison, 93, standing on the Renfrew side, throwing hunks of plain loaf to the swans and gulls from a Mother's Pride bag. He was born in a cottage only a few yards from here and has spent all his days watching the ferry go to and fro. He's dressed in a peaked cap and blue coat and says he has 1,000 photographs of the boat at home, plus screeds of data. He worked in the shipyards, first at Simons-Lobnitz in 1931 and then moving to Babcock's. "He was the best driller on the Clyde," says his pal, Charlie Newlands, 65. His last job before he retired was working on the boiler of the Waverley.

Meeting Mr Morrison is to sense very acutely how close we are to periods that feel quite distant. His father, for instance, was born in 1865, and he himself has been an eyewitness to all the maritime history of which the Renfrew ferry is a frail, lingering part. He has attended the launch of every ship on the Clyde for the past 60 years, and you can ask him a random question such as, "When was the Queen Mary launched?" in full expectation of an accurate reply. "Ah mind it was a terrible wet day ..." he'll begin and go from there.

For most people, the Clyde looks nearly empty, but for Alexander Morrison it's full of ghost ships, sleek and vivid memories. Now, as he considers the end of the ferry that is one of the few remaining vessels on the river, his blue eyes come to rest on the boat and grow sad. "They're telling me they're gonnae dae away wi' that," he says. "Ah wish they would wait till ah'm away and then they can dae whit they like."